Lynn Makau

Assistant Professor of English


  • Ph.D. in English; doctoral certificate in Women's Studies, University of Texas-Austin, 2005
  • M.A. in English, University of Texas-Austin, 2002
  • B.A. in English, Grinnell College, 1995


I teach courses on African American literature, women's literature, American historical fiction of the late 19th-century, contemporary South Asian fiction, Women's and Gender Studies, and analytical writing.

Teaching Philosophy

As a product of a liberal arts education, and having taught at a variety of institutions (including secondary and graduate schools), I appreciate Willamette's commitment to interdisciplinarity. Most people, in my experience, aren't limited to only one style of thinking or single approach to a question. I consider the wealth of backgrounds, interests and skill sets present at Willamette a major resource of our intellectual community, and I enjoy exploring new ideas and approaches within this impressive collection of collaborative learners.

I arrived at my current focus on American historical fiction by way of graduate work in postcolonial literature, women's studies, and queer theory. My teaching reflects my continuing interest in power differentials--organized around wealth, color, sexuality, gender, faith, and location--and my efforts to inculcate passionate learning and active questioning in all students, especially around matters of identity and representation. My courses (like the fiction I assign) aim to unsettle perceptions of distance, to make real our affinity with "others," and to examine the repercussions of ignoring either our commonalities or important material differences.

My interdisciplinary courses typically draw a diverse mix of students whose previous exposure to subjects like intersectional identity, rights of access, and oppressive social structures widely varies. Whenever possible, I encourage class members to explicate difficult concepts and provide cultural or historical context for the fiction we read rather than appearing to "own" this information myself. Although I may occasionally lecture, my classrooms are dynamic spaces that foster intellectual discussion among all participants. We sit in a circle, which encourages verbal and visual engagement and substantive participation from everyone at least once per class meeting. In addition, I rearrange small groups to feature students' individual strengths and engender the greatest exchange of information.

In the spring section of "Peculiar Intimacies" last year, I was overjoyed during a discussion in which the proverbial light bulb of comprehension appeared above each student's head as various people explained the concept of intersectionality. I believe in empowering students to teach one another and in building their confident use of terminology, concepts, and analytical reading and writing skills. Students soon discover my expectation of textual support of their claims, both when writing and speaking. They learn to find "answers" by attending to primary sources and quoting the rich language of the literature. Such answers require original interpretation, critical thinking, and respectful discourse. I create opportunities to cultivate these skills by assigning respondents to student presentations; demonstrating the value of well-argued positions (by close-reading primary texts, performing brief lectures, and evaluating guest speakers); and challenging familiar paradigms through exposure to and examination of controversial material. If we are successful, by the end of the semester, the group may not share common beliefs--either with one another or the primary authors or critics; however they will understand and respect one another's positions and leave the class more knowledgeable and equipped to engage with the world as courteous and informed global citizens.


I recently received a grant from the American Association of University Women to support the completion of my manuscript, Peculiar Intimacies: Reading the Unspeakable in Historical Fictions of Antebellum America. My book addresses the wealth of popular historical fiction produced since the late 1970s that uncovers previously shrouded elements of American life during slavery. I argue that the explicit portrayal of boundary transgressions and resulting dynamics presented in these texts destabilize notions of distinct identity unsettling to readers yet critical to understanding social relations of the antebellum period and their contemporary repercussions. An article version of one of my chapters, "Peculiar Intimacies: Rending Antebellum Atrocities from Behind the Veil," which addresses Valerie Martin's 2003 Orange Prizewinning novel, Property, is currently under consideration at the Journal of Contemporary Women's Writing (Oxford University Press).

Two previous publications--an analysis of breastfeeding as a resistant, fugitive act paradoxically akin to infanticide in Toni Morrison's Beloved (the basis of a chapter in Peculiar Intimacies), and a critique of maternal stereotyping in two South African national narratives from the beginning and most recent points of black-authored publishing in that country--appeared as invited additions to edited book collections in 2009 and 2008 respectively. My dissertation, Milk Matters: Literary Representations of Breast-giving, Property, and the Self, examined the portrayal of lactation in South Asian and African American women's literature and argued against romanticized projections of breastfeeding as benign activity. I remain interested in discourses of maternity as evidenced by my classes on motherhood and maternal rhetoric, which emphasize the political and self-determining functions of mothering in comparative cultural contexts and popular media.